Heineken and French awarded
Johnny Heineken, the 2012 Kiteboarding Course Racing World Champion, and Jennifer French, the 2012 Paralympic Silver Medalist in the SKUD-18 class, today were named US Sailing’s 2012 Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year.
A shortlist of eight male and six female sailors – determined from nominations submitted by members of US Sailing – was evaluated by a panel of sailing journalists who selected these two sailors for the noteworthy distinction. The winners will be honoured on 26 February during a lunch at the St Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, when they will be presented with specially-engraved Rolex timepieces.
2012 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year: Johnny Heineken, 24, has been awarded for his dominating performances in competitive kiteboarding, including the Kiteboarding Course Racing World Championship in Cagliari, Italy, where he topped 148 competitors to claim the world title for a second consecutive year. Heineken also proved his racing prowess by besting 45 competitors in the Kiteboarding North American Course Racing Championship in San Francisco and 34 competitors at the Pacific Pilsner Canadian Kiteboard Course Racing Nationals in Squamish, Canada. He set a new course record (14 minutes, 4 seconds) in the Ronstan Bridge to Bridge Race in San Francisco among 58 entrants and rounded out his record by posting victories at PKRA Mexico (20 competitors), PKRA Burn Kiteboarding World Tour (16 competitors) and Copa Mexico Regatta (13 competitors). He finished second at La Ventana Classic (20 competitors) and took third at both the PKRA Beetle Kitesurf World Cup (31 competitors) and PKRA Gold Games Kitesurf (30 competitors).
The selection panel was especially impressed by the fact that Heineken’s racing took him to venues across the globe – including Germany, France and Turkey - where his fellow kiteboarding competitors were considered the world’s best. They also made note that kiteboarding (also referred to as kitesurfing - an athletic surface water sport combining aspects of wakeboarding, windsurfing and surfing and using a large controllable kite to harness the power of the wind) had come into its own as a significant sailing genre. One panelist pointed out that the term “yachtsman,” despite its allusion to the most traditional aspects of sailing, easily befits a sailor with Heineken’s talents and devotion to growing the sport.
“To even be mentioned in connection with this award is an honor; so many of my role models are on the list of recipients,” said Heineken, who was on the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year shortlist in 2011 as well. “But it’s also exciting that kiting has been accepted into the world of yachting. It’s pretty amazing how far the class has come in the last five years and exciting for me to be involved in the development of that.”
Heineken explained that kiteboarding narrowly missed becoming a discipline for the 2016 Olympics and he would be very surprised if it were not included in the 2020 Games. Course racing on kiteboards is mostly windward-leeward with some added reaches at the finish line to bring spectators to the beach “to watch the fleet going 30 knots.”
“I started kiteboarding a lot later than many of the people I’m competing against, but I did grow up sailing and that’s what has given me a strong background to be a good kite racer,” said Heineken, who took third in the 29er Worlds when he was in eleventh grade, finished fifth in the 2008 49er U.S. Olympic Trials, and served as captain of the UC Santa Barbara Sailing Team for two years. “Typical sailboat racing courses are what we’ve optimized our gear for; it’s the same game, the same tactics, really.”
Heineken added that it’s much harder to learn how to be a good tactical sailor, making quick decisions and dealing with every crossing incident perfectly, than it is to learn to kiteboard. “It’s time on the water just like every other class. You can call it a boat or a board or whatever, but kiting is the only kind of sailing where you’re directly connecting the sail through your body to the board and then to the water via the fins. You’re so involved in the dynamic of making the boat go fast through the water that I would argue it’s the most pure form of sailing.”
Heineken, who was born in Greenbrae, Calif., trains and travels with his older sister, Erika Heineken, age 26, who was runner-up this year for the Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and shared the top step on the podium with Johnny at the Kiteboarding Course Racing World Championship as the women’s division winner.
Johnny Heineken has a degree in mechanical engineering and works on the mechanical team at Alameda-based Makani Power, an alternative energy company developing airborne wind turbine technology. He is a member of St. Francis Yacht Club, which he praises for helping pioneer course racing for kiteboarding.
2012 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year: Jennifer French, 41, has been named the 2012 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year for her silver-medal performance at the Paralympic Games at London 2012. Sailing in the SKUD-18 (two-person keelboat) class, with crew JP Creignou, French secured her team’s second-place finish in a fleet of 11 international teams. In the lead up to the Games, she and Creignou, both members of US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider, also sailed the SKUD-18 to a second in the IFDS World Championship in Florida; a third at both the French Olympic Sailing Week (Hyeres) and US Sailing’s Rolex Miami OCR in Florida; and a fourth at Skandia Sail for Gold in England.
The selection panel noted that French was an exemplary representative of the USA at the Paralympic Games and throughout 2012 in the SKUD-18 class, which they described as extraordinary, well established and highly competitive.
“I’m extremely humbled and overwhelmed by the honor of being placed in the company of so many fantastic sailors who have had such an influence on me,” said French. “It’s a huge achievement, but I wouldn’t be given this award if it weren’t for JP and my husband, Tim, and a large team of special people in our lives who made it possible.”
French, who also campaigned for the 2008 Paralympic Games in the Sonar class and finished fourth at the ’08 Trials, explained that Creignou has campaigned twice before for the Paralympics and won the bronze medal as crew in the Sonar at the 2004 Games. He and French both moved to St. Petersburg in 2001 and met at a new members’ reception at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. They have been friends ever since, and when US Sailing coaches eventually encouraged the two to sail together, they weren’t sure how well they could do on the racing front. “We practiced for two months and in 2010 finished second at the Rolex Miami OCR,” said French. “That inspired us; we said, ‘Wow, we have something here,’ and sat down with our spouses to discuss launching the 2012 campaign.”
French added: “This is also a huge step for disabled sailing and for the recognition of all those who have worked so hard over the years to make disabled sailing possible. Paralympic sailing has come so far; Nick Scandone (the Paralympic Gold Medalist who was named US Sailing’s Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 2008) was really the first person who broke ground for this, and JP and I are honored to follow in his footsteps.”
Born in North Royalton, Ohio, French says the closest she got to water as a child was fishing with her grandfather on Lake Erie. She graduated from Bridgewater State College where, on a second date with her now husband Tim French, she was introduced to windsurfing and went on to do some cruising on a family boat. As a result of a snowboarding accident in 1998, French became a quadriplegic from a C6-7 incomplete spinal cord injury. Her story was featured in the documentary film “To Have Courage” and in the book Shattered Nerves.
French holds an MBA and is co-founder and executive director of Neurotech Network, a non-profit organization that focuses on education and advocacy of neurotechnology for people with impairments. In October, after writing an epilogue on the plane home from the Games, she released her new book On My Feet Again: My Journey Out of the Wheelchair Using Neurotechnology. It is the inspiring story of French refusing to accept that she would never get out of her wheelchair. Instead she became a participant in a clinical trial of a neuroprosthetic system that enables her to stand and move with her own muscles, stimulated by 24 surgically implanted electrodes. She helped advance the technology by working with the research team to test new features, push the limits of her strength and endurance and prove the viability of this new therapy for thousands of other potential recipients, including injured soldiers returning from war.